Tuesday, March 03, 2015

"The Tragedy of Canada's Census"

Aarian Marshall's CityLab article does a great job of examining the consequences and the causes of Canada's census mayhem. Reducing the amount of hard data reduces the ability of governent to deal with issues. That might have been the whole point.

Rosana Pellizzari, the medical officer of health of Peterborough, Ontario, knows a thing or two about bad data. The public health office she oversees is charged with running policy-driven health programs and services for the mid-size city and county, population 123,000, which makes it the 33rd largest metro in Canada, if that country's most recent census is to be believed.

Trouble is, she's not sure it can be. In 2010, with little fanfare or preparation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government decided that the next long-form census, completed in Canada every five years, would not be mandatory. As officials told the story, without citing any specific polls, the public had expressed concerns about their privacy when filling out the long-form census, as well as the threat of jail time should they decline to fill it out.

“We were all shocked,” says Marni Cappe, who in 2010 was the president of the Canadian Institute of Planners. “It sent a ripple through the community … They did it on a [June] afternoon when they thought, ‘Who would be paying attention?’”

So in 2011, Statistics Canada, the governmental body responsible for collecting and analyzing all of Canada’s statistics, sent out two versions of the census. The first, a mandatory short-form questionnaire, asked Canadians about their about age, sex, marital status, mother tongue, and the languages spoken at home. The second was the National Household Survey (NHS), a 40-page voluntary survey sent to 30 percent of Canadians. Munir Sheikh, then the head of Statistics Canada, resigned over the change in policy. “I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion ... the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census," he wrote. "It can not.”

Today, four years after Canada’s first voluntary long-form census, and one year away from what looks to be its second, Rosana Pellizzari is still wondering how to deal with the dearth of data. Thirty-six percent of Peterborough residents sent the voluntary survey did not return it, which gave the metro the lowest NHS response rate of all Canadian cities.

Marshall does an excellent job placing this change in its full Canadian political context, and notes the worrisome possibility that it might be imitated in other countries. This is strongly recommended: go read it.

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